‘The White Ribbon’ – corruption of the innocents on MUBI

The White Ribbon (Germany, 2009), Michael Haneke’s portrait of rural life in Germany before World War I is a beautifully shot film that evokes nostalgia in the austere black-and-white imagery while revealing a corrupt culture under the surface.

It’s Haneke’s answer to the “kammerspiel” dramas, the tradition of sometimes nostalgic films of the past that celebrate the more innocent days before the Nazi Party, the depression and the World Wars. Haneke’s visual style evokes Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Effie Briest (1974) but the simpler times and old world values that Haneke finds behind the doors of lovely manor houses and quaint homes are pure hypocrisy. Power is predation here and the children of the village, the would-be innocents, learn those lessons from the actions and attitudes of their elders. It’s Hanake’s portrait of the birth of Fascism.

It won the Palm d’or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and was an Oscar nominee for best foreign language film and best cinematography, and its American release was greeted with a lot of praise. I wasn’t as impressed.

While I appreciate the stunning visual evocation of the world and the unnerving atmosphere of punitive power and calculated cruelty under the carefully managed pose of piety, I find his sensibility sour and cynical. That’s fitting for the ever-controversial Haneke, whose films can be confrontational and brutal, and it makes this drama of life in a small German town in the years before World War I more of a horror film than a social commentary.

Christian Friedel stars and narrates as the schoolteacher who observes it all.

In black and white, in German with English subtitles

Streams for a limited time on MUBI

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
The White Ribbon [Blu-ray]
The White Ribbon [DVD]

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There are no supplements on the DVD but the Blu-ray has a substantial collection, including the well-made 50-minute documentary “Michael Haneke: My Life,” featuring interviews with stars of his previous films (including Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Huppert), and the 38-minute “Making Of The White Ribbon,” which features a wealth of revelatory footage with Haneke rehearsing his cast (especially with the kids) and directing on the set. Also includes the press conference from the Cannes Film Festival premiere and a 14-minute interview with Haneke.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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